Blind date

At 80, the great Arthur Miller has written a tiny, peculiar and frustrating novel. By Hugo Barnacle; Plain Girl by Arthur Miller Methuen, pounds 10

Janice, the plain girl of the title, wants to tell her boring and sexually incompetent husband Sam, just back from the war, that she's decided to leave him. For months she delays it. "But what set her off was his inferring one evening that he had forced himself on a German farm woman who had given him shelter in a rainstorm one night."

Which is a shame, because mistaking "infer" for "imply" used to be a reliable idiot-indicator. If a writer of Arthur Miller's prestige has started doing it, then it may have become so sanctified by custom and usage that it will now count as correct. Leaving us with fewer ways to spot idiots, and no word at all to use when we really do mean "infer".

Then again, considering how the same sentence features that weak, clumsy half-chime of "one evening" and "one night", perhaps this is not a work the OED will bother quoting as an example of anything.

Having left Sam, Janice moves into the Crosby Hotel on 71st off Broadway and there meets Charles, the blind musician with whom she finds happiness at last. After Charles's death in the late Seventies, she revisits the area to watch as men demolish the hotel for a new development.

"Soon they would be reaching her old room. An empty amazement crept over her. Out of 61 years of life she had had 14 good ones. Not bad." True, good is not bad. But this is still puzzling. We can easily work out from various references that Janice's life with Charles lasted 30 years, not 14, and all of it was "good". Miller must have confused himself in the course of the story's back-and-forth timeshifts and got his sums wrong. He does the same on a couple of other occasions too. Yet this "novel" is not exactly long and involved. It runs to less than 50 pages, a pretty moderate mass of text to check over and correct unless you're too rich, famous and arrogant to bother.

Anyway, there stands Janice watching the hotel come down, "wondering at her fortune at having lived into beauty". These are the story's last words and thus carry extra weight. The reader may be wondering what was so wrong with Janice's looks in the first place that only a blind man could find her beautiful.

Well, she had "a pulled look to her cheeks", "an elongated upper lip", whatever that is, and "a too-high forehead", all of which apparently made her a bit horse-faced. On the plus side she had "straight silky light brown hair" and a "very good compact body", so good that "between her ankles and her breasts she was as luscious as Betty Grable, or almost". Then there's her "wonderfully shaped" bottom and "good thighs" to consider, and her "witty", "sexy", hip-rolling walk; but "her best feature was her calves, which must have been extraordinarily fine to outpoint all those other blessings".

This does not sound like a bad package. In fact Janice seems to be the classic jolie laide, the unconventional stunner. For the author to resort to the device of a blind lover, so that the heroine's true worth can be seen with the inner eye, is an absurdly extreme measure in the circumstances. Miller characterises Janice as "plain" according to a norm that would have been a trifle strict even in the drawing-rooms of 200 years ago, and then seeks to claim credit for the wisdom of overruling his own shallow preconceptions. A very peculiar exercise.

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